Braves back to underdog role against Dodgers

Atlanta Braves starting pitchers Max Fried (from left), catcher Travis d'Arnaud, Ian Anderson, and Kyle Wright celebrate advancing to the NL Championship Series by defeating the Marlins 7-0 in Game 3 of the National League Division Series on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020 at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas. The Braves completed their second consecutive postseason series sweep. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
Atlanta Braves starting pitchers Max Fried (from left), catcher Travis d'Arnaud, Ian Anderson, and Kyle Wright celebrate advancing to the NL Championship Series by defeating the Marlins 7-0 in Game 3 of the National League Division Series on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020 at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas. The Braves completed their second consecutive postseason series sweep. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The Braves finally experienced being a postseason favorite in the National League Division Series. They responded by sweeping the inferior Marlins. Next week, it’s back to the underdog role.

The Dodgers, who also boast a 5-0 postseason record after two sweeps, will be the Braves' opponent in the best-of-seven NL Championship Series, beginning Monday in Arlington, Texas, as part of MLB’s 2020 postseason bubble. The Dodgers are considered sizable favorites by oddsmakers - and the Braves probably prefer it that way.

It’s a battle of heavy hitters. The Dodgers won 43 of 60 games, earning the NL’s No. 1 seed. The Braves won 35 contests and were awarded the No. 2 seed. Unlike their most recent postseason meeting, when the Braves were eliminated from the NLDS in four games in 2018, the playing field is more level this time.

The Braves have won two division titles and played three postseason series (winning two) since that ousting, when they looked to have less talent and overmatched in their first playoff appearance of this new era under general manager Alex Anthopoulos and manager Brian Snitker.

While the Braves are closer to the Dodgers in experience and talent, they’re still facing an uphill battle. The Dodgers are the class of the senior circuit, winning eight consecutive NL West titles, appearing in the NLCS in four of the past five years, and winning two NL pennants. The Dodgers are still trying to get over the final hump and win their first World Series title since 1988, while the Braves just ended their own drought of nearly two decades by advancing to the NLCS.

Unlike the Reds and Marlins, the Braves' previous postseason opponents this year, the Dodgers don’t have key weaknesses to exploit. The Dodgers were the only team to outscore (by one run) and out-homer the Braves this season.

The Reds piled up strikeouts while seeking homers. The Braves took advantage of that, holding a low-average offense scoreless in two games (22 innings). The Dodgers struck out only 471 times, the fourth-lowest total in baseball. And they did so while leading the majors with 118 homers.

Miami lacked power – the Marlins hit one homer in the three-game series – but presented a peskier group of hitters. The Dodgers have the same ability to make pitchers work, though they do it with higher-end talent and experience well beyond anything Miami offered.

Los Angeles is the only NL team that can match the Braves' star power and lineup depth. Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts are former MVPs who affect games with their offense, defense and speed. They arguably are the top two players in the NL.

Throw in proven, battle-tested talents such as Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Max Muncy, AJ Pollack and emerging star Will Smith, and it’s easy to see how the Dodgers scored at the same clip as the slugging Braves.

“The Dodgers' team is obviously great,” Braves catching coach Sal Fasano said. "They really are. They wouldn’t have won eight consecutive (NL) West banners if they weren’t. They have tremendous individual talent, but they play really well as a team. When you look at guys like Betts, Bellinger, Muncy, Taylor, Will Smith, the catcher, I could keep going.

“What we have to do is break it down. We understand they’re going to make contact. And when they make contact, hopefully we’ll be in the right position. You can’t pitch for a strikeout all the time with this team because they have a chance to do damage. I know their numbers aren’t as great as they’ve been, but it’s still a tremendous legacy team with a rich history of winning and some really, really talented players.”

Pitching-wise, the Dodgers possess frontline starters in Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw to match against Max Fried and Ian Anderson. They have more rotation depth than the Braves, and that could prove the difference in a series with no off-days. Dustin May, who had a 2.57 ERA in 12 games (10 starts) in the regular season, started Game 3 against the Padres, though he only pitched one inning because the Dodgers opted for a committee approach. Julio Urias pitched five innings, allowing one unearned run, following May. Tony Gonsolin, a second-year pitcher who had a 2.31 ERA in nine games, would’ve started a Game 4.

One potential Braves advantage: ninth-inning certainty. The Dodgers have a strong bullpen, but their ninth-inning situation isn’t as clear as the Braves'. Kenley Jansen, once the sport’s best closer, nearly blew Game 2 against the Padres. The Dodgers had to turn to Joe Kelly. Jansen isn’t Mr. Reliable anymore, and because of it the Dodgers lack a clear closer.

The Braves have stuck with Mark Melancon in the ninth, and they love the bridge they’ve built to him with a collection of upstarts and former All-Star relievers. The bullpen has been outstanding in the past week, and it can’t afford a slipup in the NLCS.

If the Braves make the World Series, they’ll have certainly earned it. They might’ve avoided the most difficult road to get to this point, but they’ll have to beat the statistically best team in baseball to have a shot at winning the second title in their Atlanta history. It begins Monday in the heart of Texas.

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